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San Diego Unified schools added more administrators while losing students in years past. Its teachers were rarely fired or denied tenure. Today, less than half of its high school juniors are meeting the California standards in reading and writing.

Those are some of the facts from a top-to-bottom study of San Diego Unified that ranges from unsurprising to worrisome. The report, paid for by Rod Dammeyer, a local businessman, gives a mixed picture of the tumultuous district. His goal is to mobilize parents and community leaders to seek change in the school district and understand its woes.

“I don’t think any reasonable person could debate that things are OK,” said Dammeyer, a San Diego transplant who helped found an educational reform group in Chicago. “They’re not even close to OK. And they’re not getting better.”

The report, conducted by University of San Diego researchers, sets out facts neither good nor wholly damning. Its authors purposely avoided drawing conclusions. They did not point to any obvious next steps and found that two potential ways to remake the school district — mayoral control or expanding the school board — would hinge on amending the city charter, the California Constitution or both. Mayoral control is improbable because Mayor Jerry Sanders doesn’t want it.

The report leaves those worried by superintendent turnover, school board politicking and the future of San Diego Unified in an uncertain spot. There is no easy or charted path to change the management of the school district, an idea floated after Superintendent Terry Grier departed after just a year and a half.

But the report does not indict San Diego Unified as being any worse than other California school systems, despite its obvious problems. That may be faint praise in a struggling state, but it suggests that the problems are larger than the school district. Some of the findings are dated, making them difficult to peg to the actions of the current school board or administration. The school board has not jumped at the report.

“I don’t think it’s much of a conversation starter,” said Richard Barrera, one school board member. “The data is out of date and there was nothing really new.”

But Dammeyer said setting forth facts in a clear, concise way is a first step toward change. And outscoring other troubled school districts isn’t a good measure of success, he said.

“Are we satisfied with the way things are?” he asked. “I don’t know how that could be.”

Researchers from the Center on Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego, along with a San Diego Unified consultant, created the report using state data and interviews. It was unveiled at a closed meeting last week of philanthropists, business leaders, parents and educators.

Their meeting marked a concrete step towards gathering a new coalition to push for better schools. Businesses, in particular, have lain dormant for years, chipping in to fund programs but rarely getting involved in the politics of how San Diego Unified is run. Grier’s exit reignited their interest in the school district. New parent groups have also cropped up. Their game plan, however, remains unclear.

“Someone made the point — where do we want to go? What is our strategy?” said John Eger, a San Diego State University communications professor who attended the meeting. “And that was never really discussed.”

The report does provide new insight into how the massive district has fared over time on issues ranging from test scores to staffing. Some of its most striking findings are about spending and other business decisions:

  • Though the number of students in San Diego Unified dropped nearly 19 percent from 2002 to 2008, spending per student increased 34 percent. Yet schools weren’t spending a lot more on books, supplies or educators’ salaries — the big increases were in employee benefits and salaries for non-educators.
  • Staffing levels didn’t track student numbers. While student numbers were falling between 2002 and 2008, the school district added more administrators. And though it cut back on counselors, nurses and teachers, the reductions didn’t match the enrollment drop. Last year during budget cuts, the numbers changed significantly: San Diego Unified actually pared back administration back beyond 2002 levels.
  • It is extraordinarily rare for teachers to be fired for poor performance. An average of seven teachers annually were warned that they would be terminated for that reason between 2000 and 2008, and most left on their own. Only a handful were actually fired. And few probationary teachers — those in their first few years of teaching — were denied tenure.
  • San Diego Unified fared better than similar school districts on the high school exit exam, had a similar graduation rate and a relatively low dropout rate in 2007. The authors noted that the dropout rate, 17.8 percent, was still troubling. But that figure is old. It dropped by nearly half the next year.

Many of the issues researchers turned up were common among California school districts, and it is unclear whether those patterns are any stronger here. Teacher firings are rare across the state, for instance. Dropouts are a statewide problem. And San Diego Unified still suffers an achievement gap between students of different races and income levels, but that is the norm for schools nationwide. Dammeyer said that comparing school systems is beside the point.

Bill Lynch, a businessman and philanthropist who read the report, said the problems aren’t confined to San Diego Unified. “Why isn’t this working?” Lynch asked. “I’m not sure that that study is going to tell us that.”

Researchers quizzed educators and community members about where they saw room for improvement. Some complained about a lack of ongoing training for teachers and principals. Others worried about the failure to help children who were learning English, too few counselors with good training, the inadequacy of classroom technology and a lack of clear school district goals.

Ultimately, the report doesn’t point to any clear solution to San Diego Unified’s problems. And it points out major obstacles to two ideas raised for changing management. Mayoral control has been a controversial reform on the East Coast that has gained favor from the Obama Administration; Grier touted getting a bigger school board, but the City Council took no action on a proposal to do that last summer.

“I don’t have a plan to change governance,” Dammeyer said. “It’s not within my purview anyway.” But Dammeyer said he wanted to know how such an effort would work.

Researchers didn’t opine about whether mayoral control or a bigger school board would help fix the district’s problems. But they said both options would require a ballot box battle. Philanthropists, parents and others looking to reform the district are unsure that either option is worth pursuing.

The mayor could easily take informal steps to get involved in San Diego Unified, such as endorsing candidates or hiring a school district liaison, the report said. More complicated moves, such as appointing the school board, controlling school finances or picking a superintendent would require voters to amend the city charter or state constitution to make it legal.

But Sanders doesn’t want to wade into school district politics. Spokeswoman Rachel Laing laughed at the idea. “He’s not interested,” she said. School critics and observers are left looking elsewhere, debating the next steps among themselves.

“There’s no specific laundry list,” said Christy Scadden, a parent foundation leader who read the report. “If anybody knew what that was, I think we’d already be doing it.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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